TORRENTIAL rain for St Edmund, our Sebastian-like protector, his
cult a thousand years old. Thin and shiny on his plinth, bristling
with arrows, he watches us process by under our umbrellas as we
hurry into the dry.
Legend has it that he was 15 when they crowned him King of the
Angles on Christmas Day on the height opposite my bedroom, this
being the borderland of the East Angles and the East Saxons - a
German prince who had inherited the crown. For many years, he was
our patron saint. Then the crusaders changed him for a soldier - St
George. Some would change George for Edmund at this moment, but
when one is old, one tends to make do with existing arrangements,
all passion being spent.
Frances Ward and Janet Wheeler are less feeble, and have
presented us with a fiery anthem in which holy Edmund's
decapitation, horribly reminiscent of what has been occurring at
this moment, makes him a shockingly contemporary Christian. There
is no escaping the darkness of every age.
Time was when history in church was a local tableau staged by
children. Now, it is terribly grown-up. Bronze St Edmund on his
plinth in the pouring rain is the young man who leaves England for
Syria to "help out", and is murdered for his pains. Time was when
days like this were county pageantry; now, they stage human history
of the moment, and it can be terrible.
No peasants today, only mayors in tricorne hats and golden
chains, a Lord Lieutenant, the higher clergy, bell-ringers, and the
dear familiar faces of those who make great churches spotless, who
laaunder, brush, polish, arrange flowers, mend, lay markers in huge
books, carry processional crosses, hand out this and that, and keep
the rich interior movement going. And trumpeters for Britten's
Fanfare. And then Marriott's oceanic plea for wisdom,
love, and might to "move o'er the water's face".
I fancied that I could hear the rain bouncing on the leads and
the gargoyles' guiding it to the ground. Old churches take the
local climate in hand, splashing it away from their walls,
channelling it into graves and beneath huge trees. The distant
sound of it accompanies the anthem, a Beowulfian hymn by the Dean
and her friend, a confrontation of the barbaric and the Christian.
That continuous war of opposites in which nothing seems to change
whatever the century.
Christ is revealed, but so is human enormity. Hope looks on.
Robert Bridges echoes Christ's sad prophecy on the Jerusalem
Temple, then brand new. When George Herbert died, they called his
poems The Temple. He called them "my writings". But the
Church of England sees its language architectur-ally, building up
its faith to dizzy heights and allowing it to sink to depths from
which it has to be rescued.
On St Edmund's Day, everything is said, sung, and done to the
sound of the rain - a steady autumnal downpour that finds out where
roofs are fragile, and roads are sinking. Our car has to nose its
way through it, like an ark pointed towards a haven, its windscreen
wipers like a metronome. Or a pulse.
We travel through a hurricane, but when we brake and stop, it is
hardly raining at all. It is not quite light when I look for
Edmund's coronation hill over the Stour. It is, at usual, no more
than a watercolour brush-stroke; a barely visible sign that he was
there. And thus here with us still.